US Open’s new shot clock is sport’s latest misstep away from the epic and the timeless

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Over the years, the concept of time as a form of currency has become a popular trope of science-fiction, from the 2011 Justin Timberlake film In Time, to a 1987 short film called The Price of Life, and Harlan Ellison’s 1965 story “Repent, Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman. In the latter, human society is run according to a rigid schedule, in which being late is not simply a discourtesy but a felony.

Misdemeanours are punished by the eponymous Ticktockman, the all-powerful timekeeper who has the power to deduct time from people’s lives, or in extreme cases terminate them altogether.

The dystopian world Ellison envisaged, in which humans are tyrannised by time, their lives ruled by endless, innumerable clocks, is one no longer recognisable solely as fiction. As technology has increased both the ease of measuring time and the number of things we can do with it, our daily existences have become like a sort of ticking prison, in which we are constantly being told that our time is running out.

Time, the eternal x-axis, has somehow become the y and the z as well. Everyone is busy, all the time. Time management — an utterly odious concept — has become one of the core skills of modern humanity. Even the most minuscule, inconsequential aspects of our lives are governed by it. Click on your latest software update and you will be confronted with a wildly speculative estimate of how long it will take to finish.

A lot of blogs and websites now provide an estimated reading time for their articles. And I’m sure I’m not the only one here who chooses my Netflix movies on the basis of length. This explains why I am still yet to watch The Godfather, h au nt e d a nd comforted by the knowledge that in the three hours it would take to watch Marlon Brando mumbling long sermons about the American Dream, I could watch two of the three Naked Gun films, and almost invariably will.

All of which brings us, in an ironically protracted sort of way, to the US Open, which announced this week that it will become the first of the grand slam tournaments to introduce a shot clock for its main draw. Players will now have 25 seconds to serve — and always did, of course, under existing time violation rules. But now they — and the crowd — will be able to see the clock ticking down, and if they fail to deliver their service within the allotted time, they will lose it.

“We are concerned about the pace of play, as all sports are,” explained Chris Widmaier, managing director of the US Tennis Association. And in a way it is no surprise that this latest innovation has come from the United States, which loves nothing more than gawping at a spurious sporting clock, whether it is the pointless twominute warning in NFL or ice hockey’s Byzantine book of time penalties — minor, double-minor, major, misconduct — that have generated an entire statistical sub-genre of their own.

But in a way, the shot clock is emblematic of a broader trend within sport, away from the epic, the timeless, the open-ended, and into the fixed, the bite-sized, the measurable. Put simply, sport is getting shorter: a move initially driven by broadcasters, who have schedules to fill and like knowing exactly when something is going to end. But now it seems the clamour is coming from paying spectators as well, who also have schedules to fill, and for whom live sport increasingly resembles a Tetris block to be slotted into the multicoloured morass of their packed, unfulfilling lives.

Other sports are already discovering this. Test cricket has been losing ground for some time now, as the general public begins to tire of a game that could take five days, or maybe three, and could finish at 6pm, 6.30pm, 7.30pm or at any time before. Then of course, we come to football: a law unto itself, in that a sport that lasts for 90 minutes with only a single break would never make it past the pitching stage these days. And throughout its long and largely conservative history, football has proved remarkably resilient in the face of attempts to gauge and define its time.

The six-second rule for goalkeepers is scarcely, if ever, applied. Nobody really knows how long a football match lasts in terms of ball time, and — despite the begrudging addition of the stoppage time board — nobody really knows how long it will last. The Real Madrid vs Juventus match on Wednesday was supposed to have three minutes of stoppage time. By the time Juventus had given away a penalty, Gigi Buffon had done his best impression of a victim of a Jeremy Beadle prank, Michael Oliver had sent him off, Cristiano Ronaldo had put away the penalty, celebrated and then been booked for his celebration, almost nine had elapsed.

Occasionally you will hear calls for football to standardise its measure of time. The game’s lawmakers are already mulling over a proposal to reduce the length of the game to 60 minutes, with the clock stopping whenever the ball goes out of play. It’s a bad, bad idea. Time-wasting may be a blight on the game, but a minor one in the grand scheme of things, and one punishable under existing laws. Once the clock stops, there is no way of telling when it will start again. Broadcasters have been trying to sneak adverts into football for decades. How long until stoppages become scheduled breaks, and matches begin to swell to two or even three hours?

The US Open’s serve clock, too, may end up having unintended consequences. When it was trialled in the qualifying competition last year, some players sped up, but others actually started taking more time over their serves once they realised they still had several seconds left. Once you introduce a clock into somebody’s life, it becomes impossible to ignore entirely. Time becomes its own, creeping protagonist.

Source: Economic Times